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NFL Draft

Why Fred Warner Deserved Every Bit Of His Contract Extension

  • The Draft Network
  • July 22, 2021
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It is usually a bad idea to pay linebackers big contracts. Most linebackers aren’t players that you want on the field on third downs, which are the highest leverage downs that a defense can face, because they aren’t particularly effective in coverage. If they are strong coverage players, they can be liabilities on base downs, as they’re often lacking against the run. 

But paying incomplete players at almost any position is a bad idea. It’s just that the demands on linebackers are so varied, that there are far more “role players” and far fewer “complete players.” It’s okay if an interior defensive tackle doesn’t bring much pass-rush juice or if a cornerback doesn’t have great tackling ability against the run—you can hide those players. A lot of incomplete wide receivers get paid highly and nobody minds too much because they can still be extremely impactful as role players; such isn’t the case for linebackers.

Hiding a bad coverage linebacker? Can’t really be done. NFL passing games have been high-lowing middle-of-the-field defenders for 80-plus yard touchdown drives for decades now. Hiding a soft run defender in the middle of your defense is just as hard.

So what do you do when you find one of those truly complete players, impact players against both the run and the pass who can do more than just hiding tendencies by managing all roles and can actually make plays no matter the deployment? You never let him leave. You pay him as much money as you can.

That’s what the San Francisco 49ers did with Fred Warner. And kudos to them.

The only linebacker in the last few years who has been arguably better in coverage than Warner is Bobby Wagner, who was previously the highest-paid linebacker in the league. And for as good as Wagner is, I’d take Warner in that fight. Warner has a wide receiver’s frame at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, and his movement skills match to boot. No linebacker in the league moves like this in man coverage; few safeties, who can moonlight as a linebacker, do either.

These are all examples of Warner’s stickiness once he commits to a man in coverage—but the instincts in zone are what truly place him atop the rankings for all coverage linebackers. It took us too long to appreciate Wagner’s integral role in the Seattle defenses of the 2010s; we’re not gonna make the same mistake with Warner. In Robert Saleh’s defense over the last few years, Warner has been the straw that stirred the drink of a versatile and dangerous zone coverage team.

Warner’s pre- and post-snap recognition are out of this world, and those allow him to undercut routes, bait throws, and generally end up in the right spot. He is a skeleton key and a problem solver, and you simply don’t let those leave your team.

So yeah, paying linebackers isn’t always the best idea. It’s not hard to see that in current big linebacker contracts and it isn’t hard to understand why they’re undervalued in the modern game. But Warner is the exception that proves the rule. Few players in the league are as uniquely suited to the modern demands of their position as Warner is, and he’s one of the most exciting young defenders in the game.

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